The Detroit Pistons are precisely stationed in the middle of the NBA, precisely where teams competing for championships do not want to be. They’re just good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference but nowhere near good enough to win a first-round series. They have a number of negative-value contracts on their books that will make it difficult to significantly retool the team this summer, all but ensuring another year in this middle ground.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there are always going to be teams in the middle of the pack and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with competing hard for a playoff berth, hosting two or three playoff games, and continuously trying to find ways to upgrade the roster on the fringes. It’s not necessarily a path that usually leads to a championship, as the modern NBA is mostly run by absolute superstars and the best way to get one is at the top of the draft, but competing as a mid-table team and hoping things break right for a year or two isn’t a bad way to run a club. It’s not as sexy as tanking to the bottom to build your way back up to the top, but if ownership and management have different goals than “maximize our chances of winning a title in the next decade”, then it’s a perfectly legitimate way to go about things.
Detroit’s former spending will keep them incredibly boring this summer, unless they can find a home for Reggie Jackson’s monster expiring contract or decide that they do want to make that drop down to the bottom of the league by capitalizing on the best year of Blake Griffin’s career in a trade to send him elsewhere. Barring something unforeseen, they’ll have a handful of decisions to make over the next month or so: two draft picks at No. 15 and No. 45, the team option for Glenn Robinson’s $4.3 million contract for next season, and the $1.4 million non-guaranteed contract for Svi Mykhailiuk, which will become fully guaranteed if he’s not waived by July 5.
The pair of draft picks are a nice embodiment of the middle ground the Pistons currently occupy. No. 15 is just outside the lottery, as Detroit was the worst team to make the playoffs in 2018-19, and while there are a few high-profile players taken with that particular pick over the years, the expected value at No. 15 isn’t incredibly high. Ditto for No. 45, which is right on the border of where the draft falls off and contributors are much harder to find each year. Still, they’ll have two chances to nab a wing, which is clearly their biggest need at this point. There are a few wings/forwards who might fall to them at No. 15 and make an immediate difference next season, but we’ll have to see how the draft shakes out for them. They can also go with any number of guards expected to be available to them in this range; I particularly like Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s secondary playmaking potential for Detroit.
Robinson’s option is an interesting decision. He hasn’t proven enough to make him a positive value on a one-year contract for $4.3 million, but it’s not as if the Pistons would have a lot of wiggle room to replace him if he walked away and I’m not sure he’d take kindly to them declining that option to offer him less money. Is it worthwhile for Detroit to pick up the option on what would be a negative-value contract since they really don’t have anything better to do with that money? They’ll have enough room below the tax to use their full mid-level exception without going over the line if they keep Robinson, so there’s little incentive for them to send him into free agency other than to open up the roster spot and save their owner a few million bucks. Mykhailiuk’s non-guaranteed contract should be a no-brainer. He didn’t play much down the end of the year for Detroit but for $1.4 million, they absolutely should keep him around as a shooter off the deep bench.
Assuming they pick up Robinson’s option and keep Mykhailiuk past his guarantee date, they’ll walk into the summer with $11 million to spend below the tax. The full mid-level exception takes up $9.2 million of that; add in a minimum contract and they’re right at the line. They can always make a trade later on in the year to duck back under the tax or they can hold back on using the full mid-level. They have a history of using bit of the mid-level to sign their second-round picks to longer contracts, as they did with Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown last summer. Still, using most of the mid-level on a starting-level wing would be the best use of that money, though there will be plenty of teams looking for wings this summer. A few options who could fill the hole on the wing, with Jackson, Griffin, Luke Kennard, and Andre Drummond taking up the other starting spots: Wilson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Garrett Temple, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, Rodney Hood, James Ennis, and Dorian Finney-Smith. None of these names will necessarily vault the Pistons into the top four in the East, but each would bring something different to the team and could be signed for most of the mid-level (or in some cases, a lot less than that). Additionally, some of these guys aren’t full-blown starters night in and night out capable of giving a team 32 minutes per game, but the Pistons have a number of other wings on the roster who fit that same description. Playing a wing-by-committee system and trying to find one or two who pop out from the rest is the best move for a Detroit team that doesn’t really have the financial flexibility to go in another direction at that position.
The mid-term future is a bit rosier for the Pistons, who will be out from under the onerous contracts of Jackson, Jon Leuer, and Langston Galloway after the 2019-20 season and may be able to walk into the summer of 2020 with $25 million in cap space. They’ll have a lot of holes to fill in their rotation at that point, but at least they’ll have some money to spend. Drummond’s contract expires after the 2020-21 season, giving them even more spending power going into the final year of Griffin’s supermax contract. He’ll be 32 at that point and after the progressions he’s made over the last few years, it would be unwise to bet against him still being a strong player in a few years. They also have all of their own first-rounders in the ensuing years, which will give them a chance to keep the roster full of young talent or cash in on players and picks to add another star next to Griffin.
The Pistons are in a bit of a difficult position this summer and don’t have the necessary financial flexibility to spend their way to a better team. Some patience and restraint this summer will pay dividends in the future, if they can manage it, as their books will clear up over the next two years and give them a real chance to reset in Griffin’s final year. Meanwhile, adding around the edges with the money they do have and doing their absolute best to nail their draft picks will have to tide them over as they trudge on as first-round fodder for the best teams in the Eastern Conference.